Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Peer Pressure, #Sexual Abuse, #Adolescence
“Are the boys who assaulted you present in the courtroom?”
Leaving Doctor Atwood’s office ejects me directly onto the snowy…
I was eight when my mom left. One day, she…
It’s strange how sometimes you can turn your back for…
Mom had cooked chicken pot pie, which was one of…
I woke up to a chilly, drumming rain. No chance…
We got through the rest of the summer. We had…
Doctor Atwood says, “There’s one part of the story I…
The first ten minutes of the bus ride were my…
It was the first of November. I remember because Daria…
Nothing was ever the same after Kevin and Chris saw…
Doctor Atwood says, “Maisie, do you think we could revisit…
My mom used to talk about waiting for the other…
The next day was maybe the worst, although by this…
Cynthia, the lawyer—our lawyer, as Joan keeps saying—is Joan’s good…
It’s the Saturday after I found the drawing of myself…
“Are the boys who assaulted you present in the courtroom?”
Anything can start to seem routine. My awful life has…
Two days before I’m supposed to make my statement, my…
At first I was nervous about telling the truth, especially…
“Are the boys who assaulted you present in the courtroom?”
“Your Honor, I object to counsel’s use of the word
“Are the boys who
you present in the courtroom?”
“Objection, Your Honor.
“Are the boys who
touched you inappropriately
on the school bus here today in the courtroom?”
I wait for the sputtery lawyer fight that will save me from having to answer. But this time, it doesn’t happen. The courtroom is silent. No one moves. Someone coughs. Everyone’s staring at me.
“Yes,” I say.
“Can you identify the boys who touched you, Maisie?” I hate the way the lawyer speaks to me, as if I’m three years old, or as if I’ll shatter in pieces if she speaks in the normal voice a normal person might use when that person happens to be talking to a halfway intelligent ninth grader.
I look over at the table where the three defendants sit jammed together with their lawyers. It’s crazy that now they’re
. Shakes and Chris and Kevin are my
. Or anyway, they
to be my friends. When they were my friends, they wore baggy jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps. Now that they’re defendants, they’re wearing suits and ties and short haircuts. All three of them are hunched up tight so their shoulders
won’t touch their lawyers.
Chris and Kevin won’t look at me. But Shakes and I make eye contact, or as much steady eye contact as you can make, considering Shakes has that funny twitch or tremor that keeps throwing him out of focus.
I’m trying to send Shakes a message.
I’m sorry. I can’t help this. Please don’t hold it against me.
But it’s not getting through. Looking at him is like talking into a phone that you suddenly realize has gone dead.
“Will the witness answer the question, please?”
I try to speak. Nothing comes out.
And then, as always, my eyes blink open, and I wake up with the judge’s voice echoing inside my head.
“So what do you think the dream means?” Doctor Atwood asks.
“I don’t know.” I shrug. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a therapist, like Doctor Atwood—to figure out what the dream means, and to come to the logical conclusion that I’m pretending not to get it.
I look out the window. It’s snowing. It may sound kind of egocentric, but sometimes I can’t help thinking
that lately the weather’s been keyed in to my personal calendar. Every time I go to Doctor Atwood’s office, it snows. It’s only February, but already it seems like the longest winter in human history. In fact, it’s a record breaker, the harshest winter in Pennsylvania history. I’m trying not to take it personally.
“Maisie,” says Doctor Atwood. “Stay with the dream. What are you thinking? What does it mean?”
Is she kidding?
My three best friends touched my breasts on the back of the school bus. Someone told the principal, and the whole thing kind of blew up. Now my family—my stepmother, Joan, mainly—is suing the school board for denying my right to an equal education. She wanted to charge my friends with sexual harassment or assault and battery or attempt to inflict emotional damage or whatever. Fortunately, her lawyer told her those cases are often harder to prove. Frankly, I was really relieved. As mad as I am at what my former best friends did to me, I still don’t want to see them in jail.
Joan said, “These cases are all about he said, she said. And in your case, Maisie, it’s he said, he said, he said, she said.” Which was fine with me. Because there
are all these different versions of the story of what happened on the bus. First I denied that anything happened, and then I told everyone that actually it was worse than what people were saying.
There’s plenty to look at in Doctor Atwood’s office, which is lucky because it saves me from having to stare back into her cocker spaniel eyes staring into mine. It’s almost as if she wants to peer straight into my brain.
Half the time, I want to let her. Because the truth is, I’d be interested in knowing what’s going on in there. The rest of the time, I’d prefer a little privacy.
So I look away and check out her collection of African statues and masks. I like to imagine that, every evening, after the last patient has gone home, Doctor Atwood takes the sculptures off the shelves and dresses them up like dolls. I imagine her ordering pizza or take-out Chinese food and feeding the masks as if they were babies, coaxing them to open their grinning mouths and jagged teeth, and take a tiny taste.
“Maisie?” she repeats, in her maddeningly calm voice. “Do you think the dream is trying to tell you something?”
“There’s no need to be hostile,” she says. “I’m only trying to help. You know that, Maisie, don’t you?”
“Actually, I do,” I say. “So help me figure this out. My dad is paying you to keep me from being permanently damaged by my big traumatic experience. And to tell the court or the judge how crazy I am because of what happened on the bus. So if you’re asking
what my dream means, my dad should be paying
“Maisie, I don’t think you’re crazy at all.”
“I’m glad someone doesn’t,” I say.
“No one does,” says Doctor Atwood.
“That’s a comfort,” I say.
“Just for the record,” Doctor Atwood says, “I won’t be testifying at any sort of hearing. I
write a report of some kind. But I want to promise you, I won’t betray anything you tell me in the privacy of this office.”
I say, “Like Las Vegas?”
“Like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Doctor Atwood lets a minute pass. I look at a mask that seems to have blood dripping down its teeth. What a weird piece of art to have in a child psychologist’s
office. Oops. Doctor Atwood’s lips are moving.
“What were you saying?” I ask. “Sorry.”
She almost looks annoyed, then remembers she isn’t supposed to. Probably the first lesson they teach you in psychotherapy school is don’t look annoyed and act really interested even if you’re completely bored.
She says, “You understand that your family thought it was a good idea if you started coming to see me. No one’s forcing you—”
“I’m not angry.” I mean it. I know that she’s my expensive new paid best friend. But now that I no longer have any real friends, at least she’s someone to talk to. “Maybe the dream is telling me that I’m nervous about the trial.”
“Good,” says Doctor Atwood. “Stay with that.”
“Stay with what?”
“Your feelings about the trial.”
“It’s not a trial,” I say. “It’s a hearing.”
“The hearing,” she says. “I’m sorry.
was your word, Maisie.”
“The hearing,” I say.
“And your feelings about it are…?”
“My feelings? I feel like total crap! I wish it wasn’t happening. I wish it never got started.”
I want to tell her how the whole mess often seems to me like one very long, very complicated bad dream, or like some evil chain email message that you don’t take seriously, so you send it on to six friends, because it seems funny. And then each of your friends sends it on to six of their friends, and before you know it, the entire country is being told that they’ll be run over by a freight train unless they send a dollar to a certain address. And finally someone breaks the chain and doesn’t send the dollar. And that person gets run over by a freight train.
The reason I denied that anything happened at first was because the guys were my friends. And then I found out something totally insulting and gross. So I said: Okay. Fine. It happened. Then I said, Guess what? The incident on the back of the bus was
than everyone thinks.
“And why do you think it
happening?” Doctor Atwood says.
“The hearing. The case.”
I say, “Ask
. It was all
you mean your mom?” Doctor Atwood says. “Joan?”
“Joan is not my mom,” I say. “Joan is the Wicked Stepmother.”
“Should we talk about
?” asks Doctor Atwood.
Whenever we get anywhere near a Big Important Subject—and obviously Doctor Atwood thinks that my feelings about my stepmother are a Big Important Subject—she’ll keep quiet and give me as much time as I need. Now I wonder if she’ll give me so much time that I can get through the rest of the session without saying another word. I open my mouth and make little sputtering sounds, then close it again and frown as if I’m thinking really hard.
Doctor Atwood waits. I wait. More time goes by. My plan seems to be working. Because I hear a door open and shut, and sounds—throat clearings and assorted honkings and snorts—coming from the waiting room. The office is set up so that you enter through one door and leave through another, which means that you never have to meet the patients with appointments before and after you.
I’ve never met the guy who comes right after me,
but I have a name for him. Phlegm Man. Now, as always, Phlegm Man’s revolting upper respiratory noises get louder and louder, as they do every time he’s getting ready to see Doctor Atwood. Until they reach a crescendo, and it sounds like his sinuses are revving up to explode all over the waiting room.
“I think our time is up,” I say.
Doctor Atwood looks at her watch. “So it is,” she says. “All right. To be continued.”
Leaving Doctor Atwood’s office ejects me directly onto the snowy street. I look down at my sneakers and calculate how long it’s going to take my feet to freeze. Then I turn around and tromp back into the building and upstairs to Joan’s office. Joan is also a therapist, but only for adults. She knows Doctor Atwood, but not all that well. They’re neighbors and colleagues, they say, and both of them have promised me that they won’t discuss my case without my permission.
I’d tell my
therapist anything Joan shouldn’t know!
I think, If Joan’s still in her office she can give me a ride. But taped to the door is a Post-it that says,
Maisie! See you home. I heart you. Joan.
It’s just as well. So what if my feet get a little cold? The snow’s almost stopped, the streets are hushed and peaceful, and I like walking past the pretty white houses and the pretty white lawns of our peaceful, half-suburban–half-country town. In fact I’m feeling pretty peaceful myself by the time I get home. But the calm instantly melts away in the steamy heat of our kitchen.
I don’t want to seem paranoid, but I can’t help wondering if Doctor Atwood could have called home and told Joan what I said about Joan not being my real mother. Because by the time I’ve walked back to our house at the other end of town, Joan’s baking cookies. Cookies! Sometimes I feel as if Joan is constantly auditioning for a TV series being filmed inside her own head.
Today’s show, on the Joan Channel, is entitled
. Joan’s wearing an apron and, around her hair, a scarf tied up in pointy rabbit ears. She’s bustling around the kitchen, singing some million-year-old disco hit as she dumps chocolate chips into a bowl and smacks the
batter around with a spoon.
“Maisie!” she says. “How was your session with Doctor Atwood?” Joan has one of those high-pitched voices that make you think the person has practiced sounding superfeminine and ultracheerful. It’s less like human speech than the song of some annoying bird that wakes you up every morning.
I say, “The only reason I agreed to go to Doctor Atwood is because you and she made such a big deal about the fact that nothing I said there would ever leave her office. She would never tell you or Dad anything I told her. And now you’re asking
what happened at our session? Isn’t that sort of a contradiction?”
“I’m sorry,” says Joan. “I respect that. As a professional, and a mother.”
So now Joan’s gone from Sitcom Mom to Doctor Joan Marbury, Therapist. Joan
have been an actress. That’s what she does best. She loves playacting and dress-up. I think that’s how she hooked my dad.
One afternoon, not long before I left Joan and Dad here in Pennsylvania and went to spend eighth grade in Wisconsin with my real mom and her new husband, Geoff, I went into my dad’s—I mean my dad’s
and Joan’s—bathroom. I’d run out of toilet paper and Sitcom Mom had forgotten to buy it.
Joan had washed her underwear and hung it over the tub to dry. It was all black lace and ribbons, the kind a stripper or hooker might wear. But definitely not Sitcom Mom or, for that matter, Doctor Joan Marbury, Therapist.
It grossed me out to think that she owned it, but I was
grossed out by the idea of her wearing it, and even
totally grossed out by the fact that she would leave it out there like that, for anyone to see, in the house where she lived with two kids—me and Joan’s own son, my stepbrother, Josh Darling. Also known as Darling Josh. His real name is Joshua Marbury, but Joan calls him Josh Darling this, Darling Josh that.
Since then, I’ve never been able to look at Joan without feeling as if I have X-ray—X-rated—vision that can see straight through her clothes to her underwear. Which, believe me, isn’t something I’m eager to see.
Now she says, “You know that Alana and I don’t talk about you. You have to trust us about that. But I can’t help suspecting that you’re probably not opening up to her yet.”
Opening up? The words make me feel queasy, as if
I’m a patient on an operating table and Joan and Doctor Atwood are doing surgery on my brain. “If the two of you don’t talk about me, how do you know whether I’m opening up?”
Joan flashes me a smile, dazzling me with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of dental work, done for free by my dad.
“Maternal instinct, I guess,” she says. “And professional experience. Maisie, dear, you always act as if you’re trying to catch people in a lie. But the fact is, no one’s lying to you.”
If I live to be a thousand years old, I’ll still never understand why my parents chose the people they married—remarried—after they split up. As far as I know, my dad’s allergic to chocolate, so unless Joan’s trying to kill him, which I don’t think she is, you’d think she could bake oatmeal raisin bars. Or lemon squares. But if Joan can’t do one thing right to help me get through this hideous time I’m going through, what makes me think she could bake cookies that anyone in our family might actually want to eat?